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Student Funded Fellowships: For the Students, By the Students

By Allison Hight
April 19, 2018

An old edition of the University of Michigan Bulletin notes that Student Funded Fellowships (SFF) originally was founded to help students “who wished to explore careers alternative to traditional corporate practice” and to provide funds to allow them to work “with legal services organizations, public defenders and prosecutors’ offices, and civil liberties groups.” Forty years after its founding, SFF still is strongly supporting that mission.

Each year, the organization’s efforts to provide grants for students who take unpaid summer internships doing public interest work culminate in the SFF live auction, a festive evening during which students and faculty bid on items donated by professors and alumni. Excitement always runs high at the auction, and this year was no exception. The evening kicked off with a performance by the Law School’s a cappella group, the Headnotes, and a screening of the annual SFF video—a humor-filled glimpse of life at the Law School—before the bidding began. Many auction items offered students opportunities to spend time with professors outside of class, such as skiing with Professor Julian Mortensen, a trip to the Detroit Opera House with Professor Sherman Clark, and a trivia night with Professor Kyle Logue. This year, the live auction raised $33,600, with additional funds coming from a concurrent silent auction and matching bids from the Wein Hirshon Charitable Foundation for a total of $58,249.

SFF co-chairs, 2Ls Jake Itzkowitz and Hannah Rubashkin, described the planning for the auction as a yearlong endeavor. “We fundraise from alumni and law firms; solicit donations from faculty, students, and alumni; pick a theme; and then find faculty to serve as auctioneers and students to serve as emcees,” Rubashkin explained, describing just a few of the many tasks that the SFF board performed throughout the year. Itzkowitz added, “We never really stop planning the auction.”

One of the most popular items of the night was the chance to sing karaoke with Professors Maureen Carroll, Sonja Starr, and John Pottow. One student even started bidding against himself in order to get his bid matched by the Wein Hirshon Charitable Foundation, inspiring a round of applause from the crowd. Other popular items included a murder mystery dinner with Professors Richard Friedman and Daniel Crane and a skydiving trip with Professor Mathias Reimann.

The auction also coincided with one of Michigan Law’s preview weekends and the men’s basketball team’s opening-round NCAA Tournament game, allowing admitted students a chance to experience a taste of the larger U-M community. Itzkowitz says that the auction is what originally drew him to Michigan Law when he attended his own preview weekend. “Over the course of the evening, I realized how incredible it was that Michigan’s students were so invested in helping each other,” he said. “This sensation is part of what brought me to Michigan and the big reason I got involved in SFF once I got here.”

Even though the SFF board works hard to make sure everyone has fun at the action, the students and faculty remained focused on the purpose of the night: supporting the work of public interest students. “They take on work that is often unpaid but that is vital to the communities that they serve,” Rubashkin told the crowd. “We are honored to support that work.”

One such public interest student is James Coatsworth, a 2L who received an SFF grant last summer to work as a law clerk for the Orleans Public Defenders. "The experience taught me how to write bond reduction motions and suppression motions for clients charged with felonies. Each motion gave me an opportunity to talk to our clients and tell his or her story to the court,” he said. He described the work that SFF does as “spectacular. It’s a reflection of the genuine compassion for each other within the student body.”

Rubashkin also expressed that she thinks the work that SFF does is representative of Michigan’s student body. “SFF adds a sense of camaraderie and shared enterprise to Michigan Law. The entire school values the work of the public interest community, and the auction is one way that value is articulated.” Itzkowitz agreed. “The auction was what brought me into SFF, but the mission is what has kept me running all this time. You might call it the Michigan difference.”

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